Thursday, February 24, 2022

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - The Next Decade

Kim Jong-un with his wife, leading DPRK officials up Mt. Paektu in 2019. Image source: KCNA.

 

Introduction

Throughout this series, I have tried to draw from numerous sources to provide an accurate accounting of the first decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule and to limit the number of my own opinion-based comments. For this final article, opinion is about all that anyone could offer. Informed opinion, but opinion and supposition, nonetheless.

People have offered predictions about North Korea since its inception. That there was no way it could survive the Korean War. That Kim Il-sung would end the nuclear program. That Kim Jong-il would falter in the face of famine and the whole system would collapse. That Kim Jong-un couldn’t handle power at such a young age or that war is inevitable.

Those predictions were all wrong. At the same time, plenty of other predictions have been right. That the government would survive the famine because it didn’t care about cutting less desirable citizens off from food. That the country would achieve nuclear miniaturization. That it wouldn’t stop illicit trade activities regardless of the United Nations and especially regardless of the United States.

So, this ‘look to the future’ opinion piece is just as likely to be wrong and to be right and to have areas of grey as the future unfolds and becomes the present. With that caveat, I will attempt to look at the trends of the last decade, the changes, and what’s stayed the same from Kim to Kim to Kim to inform my own views of what the next decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule may look like.

 

COVID and the Economy

The most pressing issue that Kim Jong-un will have to resolve is that of economic contraction due to his lockdown of the country over COVID-19 fears. After two years of very limited trade and internal quarantine measures, the economy is suffering more than it has at any other point during his rule and the food situation, in particular, has reached a critical point.

Although illicit activities have continued unabated, bringing in hundreds of millions each year, there is little indication that those funds are being used to prop up the economy; rather, they are most likely being used to maintain Kim’s lifestyle, provide gifts to the elites to keep their loyalty, and to continue the country’s military buildup.

As such, legal trade must resume before a crisis becomes inescapable, leading to future disease outbreaks (such as from tuberculosis), a limited famine, or even popular unrest. Kim will also have to consider finally allowing vaccines into the country as COVID-19 stops being a pandemic and transitions to an endemic global illness that will be around for years.

Leaving no opportunity behind, the COVID lockdown actually provides Kim the opportunity to gain greater control over the broader economy and over the economic activities of the people as the ‘border blockade’ has made it even more difficult for unapproved cross-border trading to continue. This places the state in a better position to control and monitor what goods come into the country, and it has set up at least two decontamination centers to help facilitate the resumption of trade: one in Sinuiju and one at the Port of Nampo.

A test run at the Sinuiju center recently took place on January 17, 2022, when a train entered North Korea from China after a two-year border shutdown resulted in an 80% drop in trade with the country. The outcome of the train visit and how well the government thinks the Sinuiju facility handled the operation may allow for a slow resumption of trade in the near future.

One twist in North Korea’s economic story has been how Kim, in the early years, allowed limited reform and the markets to continue to grow, but under COVID he has reverted back to more anti-market policies, desperately trying to reign in free market activities and strengthen the state’s central control over the economy. How this struggle against marketization will play out is anyone’s guess, but one complication that Kim is currently having to deal with and will continue to need to contain in future years is the “tyranny of growing expectations”.

As people become accustomed to a certain living standard, they begin to expect more from their government and begin to expect that life in the future will be better than what they have today. In a growing globalized world, this works itself out through expanding free markets and liberalized governments. But in North Korea and other closed states in the past, it can turn into a major threat to the regime as the government cannot compete with the gains made by marketization, and as the people realize that the outside world is much wealthier and freer than what they have at home.

Kim Jong-un made improving living standards and access to consumer goods a key pillar of his rule since the beginning. Promising no more ‘belt tightening’ in 2012, the government is today telling people that they should expect food shortages until at least 2025. After the moderate but measurable rise in living standards of the last 10-15 years, if the government isn’t able to maintain upward growth, then the popular pressure of growing expectations can serve to destabilize the regime.

Should this meld with other pressures against the current system, an inescapable domino effect may occur in the future, leading to the end of the state. This has been one of the biggest threats to the Kim’s and it is something they have managed to avoid thus far, but no one knows where the ultimate tipping point lies.

Regardless of economic reforms or further ossification, one thing, of course, that continued throughout the pandemic and will continue well into the future is North Korea’s illicit activities. Whether it’s selling counterfeit goods, money laundering and theft, or busting sanctions with oil, fish, luxury goods, and other commodities, the state will keep relying on these ill-gotten millions each year to try to stabilize the system and keep the elites in lockstep with Kim Jong-un.

 

Weapon Development

Missile development is the next most important issue as Kim Jong-un works toward realizing his “wish list” as laid out in his speech to the 8th WPK Congress in January 2021. This list includes everything from developing improved ICBMs to hypersonic glide vehicles to tactical nuclear bombs and other weapon systems.

Kim Jong-un spent much of 2021 testing multiple weapons and showed off a wide range of equipment (some known, some new) during the “Self Defense 2021” exhibition. He also began 2022 with a series of seven missile launches that included its longest-range missile test since 2017.

Since the failed summits, North Korea has embarked on a series of technology demonstrators like the hypersonic glide vehicles (showing off two different designs) and rail-based missile launches. Having declared the country’s nuclear deterrent complete, Kim is going to need to continually develop new delivery methods and to improve his nuclear arsenal’s survivability, as it currently relies on a limited number of large, slow-moving TELs that cannot be easily replaced. This helps to explain the proliferation of weapon designs as well as radar and improved air defense systems.

I believe that future nuclear tests are unlikely, but they can’t be ruled out as Punggye-ri still has two functional tunnels. And after North Korea implied that the self-imposed moratorium on testing would no longer be adhered to, it does place future tests on the table.

 

In terms of sanctions, I think that it is unarguable that they have been an abject failure. Upwards of two hundred thousand citizens are still locked in prison camps, the country has tested nuclear weapons and created miniaturized warheads, North Korea has missiles that can reach the United States, and the Kim family is still firmly in control. However, one reason why sanctions have failed is that the enforcement of those international sanctions is rooted in each individual UN member state’s own interpretations of the sanctions and their own willingness to enforce them.

China has been integral to North Korea’s ability to skirt sanctions and carry out illegal activities. And while China occasionally gets tired of Pyongyang’s behavior and temporarily gets stricter with enforcement, the existence of North Korea is within their own national self-interest. This means that China will never do anything that might directly cause the collapse of the current government short of North Korea declaring war or causing significant damage to China itself.

Therefore, absent greater international pressure on China to plug the enforcement leaks and loopholes, China will continue to be North Korea’s lifeline and Kim Jong-un will continue using this to his advantage.

Until China becomes willing to strictly enforce sanctions or until either the United States or South Korea becomes willing to cave on major issues (all unlikely scenarios), North Korea is going to keep testing weapons. The goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) is now completely unrealistic unless the United States is willing to go to war, which it hasn’t been despite the murder of multiple US military personnel and the assassination of multiple South Korean officials over the decades.

In my view, the only viable option is that of arms control, limiting the number of warheads and their yields, limiting the range of missiles, and limiting the numbers of launchers North Korea can have in exchange for substantial sanctions relief.  However, the human rights situation complicates matters as does Pyongyang’s history of ignoring agreements.

At least in the near term, we should certainly engage in talks but the longer-term position is likely to be merely “wait and see,” as neither side seems willing or capable of making the difficult decisions or want to risk losing face, and as North Korea hasn’t been patient enough for slower confidence-building measures prior to more substantial agreements.

 

Human Rights

Domestically, human rights abuses will assuredly continue. Kim Jong-un has shown little inclination to degrade the state’s system of prison camps and he has ramped up internal surveillance to levels not seen since Kim Il-sung.

Although Camp 22 was closed under his watch in 2012, many of the prisoners were merely transferred to other sites, and others are alleged to have been allowed to starve to death to enable the camp’s closure.

In contrast, prisons in Pokchong-ni, Kangdong, Chidong-ri, Yongdam, Nongpo, Chongjin, Hwasong, Pukchang, and others have all seen new construction or renovations to their facilities. Additionally, public executions outside of the prisons, within regular towns and villages, have reportedly not ended and are now carried out for things like watching certain foreign media.

Since coming to power, Kim Jong-un has directed the Ministry of Social Security, Ministry of State Security, the People’s Border Guards, and other relevant agencies to crackdown on defections and unapproved cross-border economic activity. In 2011, 2,706 defectors made it to South Korea. By 2018, only 1,137 defectors were able to make it to the South. However, COVID-19 gave Kim a great opportunity to ramp up the repression of freedom of movement.

Hundreds of new border guard huts and hundreds of kilometers of new border fencing have been erected during the pandemic. While anti-defection measures had been begun prior to COVID, nearly the entire northern border ended up with a double row of electrified fencing since the beginning of the pandemic. Although the ‘border blockade’ is ostensibly to prevent the spread of the virus from Chinese persons and goods illegally crossing the border, it has served to nearly end defections.

In 2021 a mere 63 defectors made it to South Korea.

 

Freedom of expression and thought have also come under greater assault, especially in the last few years, as Kim has solidified his rule and now looks forward to being the only Kim in charge for another generation or two, in the model of his grandfather.

There is no greater threat to a closed society than information and no greater threat to an authoritarian system than individuality. It is said that blue jeans helped bring down communism. This wasn’t because jeans come with guns or brings down economies, but because they became a symbol of capitalism and individuality. While the saying is overly simplistic, that basic article of clothing became subversive and was a reminder that the free world and its values were thriving, while breadlines and secret police were all communism had to offer.

Similarly, North Korea has relied upon the group subsuming the individual. The masses, as a unified whole, are what the North Korean government and society are built upon. The individual only exists as an entity for so long as they give themselves over the larger group and never turn their back on socialism by highlighting their individuality or demanding to be treated as a human being equal to any other.

This feature of all authoritarian regimes, left and right, is relied on to keep the masses in line and curtail any risk of nonconforming thoughts and actions. It is this feature that Kim Il-sung wielded to such a great effect that for a stretch of thirty years, almost no known public demonstrations or other protests occurred.

And after the breakdown of the information cordon in the 1990s, it is this feature that Kim Jong-un must learn to wield again, or else he will have to accept that permanent cracks in the system exist and may one day bring the entire system crashing down.

To this end, more and more effort is being expended on hunting down purveyors of smuggled media material, cell phone tracking and blocking technology has been installed along the entire Sino-DPRK border, and the government has taken greater steps to punish officials and police who turn a blind eye toward or take bribes to overlook illegal activity. Even attacks on everything from non-traditional hairstyles to using foreign slang have been couched in terms of national salvation – of restoring a true socialist community by going after impure, reactionary elements.

Kim Jong-un has even leveraged South Korea’s desires for diplomatic normalization to get the South Korean government to pass laws violating human rights within the ROK merely to appease him. But all that has done is hurt the South’s own legitimacy and standing as a democratic beacon in the region while enabling Kim Jong-un to limit the flow of outside information and culture into the country.

In my view, it’s hard to see a time when this rise in human rights abuses will end so long as the invisible yet existential threat of COVID exists. Of course, the government has never needed a real threat to its existence to lash out at foreign elements within the self-proclaimed racially and culturally pure North Korean community, but COVID happens to be a very real threat and provides an excellent opportunity for Kim to maintain his veer toward greater authoritarianism.

 

Future of Foreign Relations

Between assassinations, further missile and nuclear tests, and a never-ending list of illicit activities, North Korea has become more and more isolated under Kim Jong-un. The government’s anti-pandemic measures have only exacerbated this with the removal of diplomatic and foreign aid staff from the country. But North Korea has still tried to strengthen ties with China and Russia, as well as Eastern European and African countries through the exploitation of DPRK citizens as foreign labor and, occasionally, construction project leaders.

The long and turbid history of North Korea’s interactions with the world has created an unstable environment with little ingrained goodwill or trust among all parties. Its history with the United States has been particularly fraught.

The Clinton administration thought it had a workable deal in the development of the Agreed Framework, but the death of Kim Il-sung and subsequent famine radically altered the world Kim Jong-il was forced to face, and the Bush administration posed a much different threat in Kim Jong-il’s view after North Korea was labeled as part of the Axis of Evil and with the eventual invasion of Iraq. Under Obama, ‘strategic patience’ only allowed Kim Jong-il and eventually Kim Jong-un to continue their military buildup and created no real progress on the diplomatic front. With President Trump, ‘maximum pressure’ was about as unserious a campaign as one could think of. Despite the horrifying bluster with both sides threatening the annihilation of the other, maximum pressure was more like moderate suggestions, particularly as international efforts continued to hinge on China’s willingness (or lack thereof) to enforce the will of the United Nations.

After a year of a new administration under Biden, it has become obvious that the United States lacks the bandwidth to deal with Kim Jong-un. In the face of continual missile tests, failed summits, and mounting geopolitical problems elsewhere, Americans and the international community itself seem to be going numb to Pyongyang.

Launches no longer draw the media attention they once did and South Korea’s official announcements regarding activity at various nuclear facilities have basically become exact copies of each other, with only the dates changed.

In such an apathetic environment, it’s difficult to see how any progress can be made. And as Russia and China continue to serve as lifelines in the face of international will, dealing with Pyongyang can never simply be a bilateral proposition.

Of course, the only reason anyone even cares about North Korea is because North Korea made itself a problem. It has commanded the world’s attention for generations through threats and belligerent actions. Receding into the background is not the Kim way.

Kim Jong-un will eventually do something that catches the world’s eye once again, and we can only hope that the international community is willing to address whatever that is. Ignoring Pyongyang only emboldens the regime. And while there may be no good options currently and although there have been many failures over the years, discussion and diplomacy are still the best policy – even in the absence of grand agreements or apocalyptic threats. 

 

Tomorrow’s Personality Cult

The half-life of the North Korean cult of personality is roughly the reign of one Kim. During Kim Il-sung’s rule over the country, he was a genuinely beloved and respected leader. The cult under Kim Jong-il fell precipitously as upwards of 1 million North Koreans died under his watch, but the state’s system of indoctrination from birth and its security apparatus insured that the cult survived. Under Kim Jong-un, the cult has weakened further, with many young people reportedly not caring about the great ‘Paektu Bloodline’ or his alleged brilliance.

To counter this, Kim has taken multiple steps to shore up the cult, and, assuming he survives another ten years, these steps can be expected to continue as the cult forms one of the ideological pillars for the state’s very existence and must be maintained.

During his first years, Kim tried to solidify his rule by drawing direct comparisons between himself and Kim Il-sung. His appearance, dress, more personable qualities, and even riding around on white horses, all reminded the people that he was not just another leader but was the rightful heir to Kim Il-sung.

Even his ability to complete the country’s nuclear program and bring a United States president to cross the DMZ all underscored the divine blood flowing in his veins. Still, younger generations have been far more concerned with economic betterment and cultural exchanges than they have been with ridged ideologies. And this poses a long-term threat to the government.

Kim has taken the opportunities provided by COVID-19 to try to reestablish a sense of national unity through a shared crisis, and in doing so, has double-downed on the development of his own personality cult. To do this, he has turned the sacrifice of personal liberties into an expression of true patriotism, for only the Kim family, Juche, and the Monolithic Ideological System can save the country.

As part of this, he has attacked foreign cultural influences, particularly that of South Korean music and other entertainment, with a key focus on rooting out these influences from among the nation’s youth. A so-called “thought law” was implemented in 2021 that goes after those using South Korean slang, efforts have been redoubled to punish those watching foreign media, with executions in store for those accused of distributing the material, and even personal fashion choices have been attacked as being anti-socialist and part of the corrupting influence of capitalism.

With the information cordon that so dramatically cracked under Kim Jong-il being reestablished and cross-border travel becoming ever more difficult, Kim Jong-un is working toward rebuilding the ‘hermit kingdom’ of his grandfather, with as many vestiges of western influences wiped out as possible. The end results being a population less susceptible to revolution, greater government control over the people’s daily lives, less market activity, and it has prolonged the longevity of the Kim family’s rule over the country.

 

Succession & Future of Government

With questions about Kim Jong-un’s health dogging his entire reign, and the fact it is known that he has experienced medical emergencies, the matter of succession is more pressing than it otherwise would be for a ruler still in his thirties.

Kim Jong-un has made a series of structural changes to the rules of the WPK that could, theoretically, allow for the future succession of a non-Kim family member. He has also placed his sister, Kim Yo-jong, in positions of moderate official power while giving her substantial practical authority. She appears to be the most trusted person in his orbit and can routinely be seen following behind her brother taking notes and keeping meetings/events on track. Additionally, she has been given more leeway to voice her own views than anyone since Kim Jong-il was still being groomed by Kim Il-sung.

Given that Kim doesn’t have any adult children, killed his half-brother, and his other brother has largely been kept in the background, this points to Kim Yo-jong being the de facto successor in the event of an emergency.

Once Kim’s own children come of age, this is likely to change but for the time being, Yo-jong can be considered to be the second most important person in the country. While she lacks the needed official Party and military titles to take over, what’s important is Kim Jong-un’s faith in her and the fact that she has been able to build her own support base within the Party and even the military.

 

Kim Jong-un will also continue to reform the government and Party to fit the particular needs of his era. Loosening agricultural controls to improve productivity, seeking greater government revenue via market fees/taxes, the further militarization of the civilian police force, and the ongoing shift away from the Songun Policy have all made their mark.

What’s more, is as Kim has replaced older Party apparatchiks and military officers, he has opened up the opportunity to rearrange the inner workings of both organizations to cut down on corruption (which drains money and authority away from the central government), introduce and enforce his own ideological views, and he can gradually set up frameworks to deal with major crises of leadership such as if he became incapacitated or died, as well as to develop a more robust command and control system regarding nuclear weapons.

Trying to understand the decision-making process and the “why’s” within North Korea is often a form of reading tea leaves, but it is my suspicion that the cumulative effect of Kim’s efforts on the structure of the WPK and the military will lead to organizations that, in the end, will be markedly more modern and forward-looking, creating a more viable system for the future.

 

Final Thoughts

Contrary to predictions of the Kim regime collapsing or that Kim Jong-un would be a Western-minded reformer, as Pratik Jakhar has noted, his rule has been “remarkably resilient and consistent. Kim Jong Un has stayed within the confines of the framework established by his grandfather Kim Il Sung and inherited from his father Kim Jong Il. In the process, he has preserved state oppression, class divisions, purges, military adventurism, economic control and mandated glorification of the Kim family.”

Jakhar’s view sums up the last ten years and I believe it is prescience for the next ten years as well.

Throughout this biographical series, we have seen that although Kim has initiated a number of changes, they have been on the periphery and still uphold the core values of the regime. Massive construction projects and megafarms have always been part of Pyongyang’s agenda. The roots of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs date to soon after the Korean War and have melded into the national psyche, making their development an integral part of the state’s legitimacy. And there has been no decline in rampant human rights abuses nor has there been a move away from the personality cult.

External forces always elicit responses and policy changes to fit the moment, but they have followed tried and true formulas that have kept North Korea going for 77 years. Meaningful structural changes to the way things are done are never done in haste. What drift there has been over the years since the early days of Kim Il-sung has largely been incremental, with Party hagiographers and archivists taking care to erase any public trace of old policies that are no longer supported by the current ideological flavor.

Over the next decade, Kim Jong-un will undoubtedly face new challenges and will continue to face growing threats from within the country such as information sharing and marketization. But if the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that he can be relied upon to employ terror tactics within and without, and that he is only open to reform so long as that reform can help ensure the state’s longevity and his premier position within it.

And until China decides to step up its enforcement of international sanctions, there is little reason to believe that things like missile tests, illicit trade, financial crimes, and human labor trafficking won’t continue.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.

 

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 2/23/2022

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - Building Paradise

The city of Samjiyon after reconstruction. Image: KNCA, December 2019.

Introduction 

After the Korean War, North Korea had to be entirely rebuilt. Very few buildings, bridges, railways, or factories survived those three years. With substantial aid from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and China Kim Il-sung managed to rebuild most of the country by the mid-1960s and North Korea’s economy outpaced that of South Korea until ca. 1973.

Reforming the economy along socialist lines, introducing Stalinist architecture, and mobilizing millions really did mean that “socialist construction” was more than a mere slogan. And for many, who had for centuries lived in abject poverty, a paradise of sorts did arise in the beginning. But far from being a true socialist and self-sufficient state, North Korea relied on massive amounts of aid and imports at below-market prices, so-called “friendship prices”, from the Communist Bloc. New bureaucracies and elite classes (built upon the Songbun class system) also meant that the people were never on an equal footing, despite the official Party line.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the famine, Kim Jong-il struggled but failed to pull the country out of its economic decline. A mix of economic reforms, market activities, and growing illegal trade did mean that things slowly improved; however, economic conditions still have yet to fully recover from the famine years.

Every year, the leadership and the Workers’ Party of Korea offers new economic agendas and promises new successes toward the construction of a socialist paradise – a paradise that ever seems just out of reach. However, Kim Jong-un has taken the task about as seriously as one can, considering the huge expenditures on the military and the political and ideological constraints that exist.

Kim Jong-un appears to have recognized the economic drag the Songun Policy was causing through mismanagement and inefficient resource allocation, and also paid attention to the threats the state faced by ever-growing market-based activities and decided to take a different approach than Kim Jong-il.

He certainly wanted to complete the nuclear program as it practically guarantees regime survival, but there also needed to be economic growth and reforms. Not “reform” in the sense of opening up to the world and scrapping the centrally planned economy, but reform as in renovating the existing system to become more efficient, to seek new ways to evade sanctions, and help the government reign in market activity outside of its purview.

In 2013, Kim began to move away from Songun and toward a policy that had been promoted by Kim Il-sung called Byungjin (parallel development). Kim Jong-un’s iteration of Byungjin prioritizes both nuclear development and economic development, and theoretically, not one over the other. The economic development portion is focused on light and medium industry, tourism, science and technology, transportation, and energy, whereas under Kim Jong-il’s Songun, he had wanted to maintain an economic focus on heavy industry to support military requirements; often neglecting the rest of the economy and preventing any meaningful rise in people’s living standards.

The topic of living standards has been something Kim Jong-un hasn’t ignored. During the 2013 WPK meeting in which he promulgated his ideas for Byungjin, Kim stressed that it would lead to a “strong and prosperous nation where the people can enjoy the wealth and splendor of socialism.”

While weapons’ development certainly hasn’t taken a back seat, the number of major construction projects skyrocketed after Kim’s ascent to power. Touching every sector of the economy and culture, the proliferation of new projects has changed the face of the country, as Kim has staked a considerable part of his legitimacy on domestic policies and the economy.

Whether or not these projects are merely shallow attempts at propaganda wins or will make a fundamental difference in people's lives and the economy is largely up for debate as it will take more than concrete and steel to cause the fundamental reforms needed for lasting economic growth.

 

Tourism

Chair lift at the Masikryong Ski Resort. Image credit: Uri Tours, Jan. 28, 2014. CC SA 2.0.

Early on in his rule, Kim Jong-un made tourism a key aspect of his economic plan. With the ultimate goal of welcoming over two million foreign visitors by 2020 and increasing domestic tourism as well, Kim was looking forward to turning North Korea into a regional tourist destination – with all the cash tourists bring along with it. To help accomplish this, the government embarked on several high-profile construction projects.

The first was to continue work that began with Kim Jong-il, modernizing the Pyongyang-Sunan International Airport and adding a new terminal. The work, which began in 2011, carried on until 2015. The new terminal is six times larger than the old one, but tellingly, the airport’s fuel center was not enlarged. With only a few international flights into Pyongyang each week, exactly how and why thousands of new passengers would flock to the country remained unsolved.

To drive up interest in visiting the country, in 2013 Kim ordered the construction of the Masikryong Ski Resort. At a cost of $35 million and with a capacity to handle 70,000 visitors a year, it opened that same year and was North Korea’s first ski resort open to the general public. Two others had earlier been constructed in the Mt. Paektu region, but they were only available to the country’s elite and special guests.

Following Masikryong, a smaller ski facility was constructed in Kanggye-ri in 2017. The country’s oldest ski facility, in Samjiyon, was modernized in 2018 and another nearby facility that was constructed in 2001 (Pukphothae-san) was likewise renovated and may now be opened to a larger segment of the population; although, it hasn’t been mentioned by state media.

 

Waterparks were constructed in several major cities, with Pyongyang’s Munsu Waterpark boasting 14 waterslides spread out over 15 hectares. Kim Jong-un also oversaw the opening of the Rungra amusement park and directed the construction of numerous athletic facilities.

But perhaps the largest tourism-related project in the country’s history was the reconstruction of the Wonsan (Kalma) International Airport and the construction of the Wonsan Resort.

Converting the military-use Wonsan airport into a dual-use international airport for tourists and the air force began in 2013. The old 2,400-meter runway was replaced by two runways of 3,100 and 3,500 meters, and a modern terminal was constructed along with helicopter facilities.

The renovation cost between $150-200 million but its only major use thus far has been as the host airport for KPA Air Force airshows and to provide service to occasional passengers from intra-DPRK flights and government officials.

Kim Jong-un has taken a special interest in Wonsan as it’s home to his favorite seaside villa. Back in 2013 he expressed disappointment over the lack of recreational opportunities in the region and ordered that the area become a “world-class” tourism destination. These desires became the Wonsan-Kalma Tourist Zone.

Work along the beach didn’t begin until 2018 when nearly 5 km of beachfront property suddenly sprang to life all at once with construction equipment and workers. Kim has visited the area on multiple occasions and has offered specific criticism along the way. Trying to meet his demands added to the complexity of the project that was initially expected to open in April 2019. That deadline has been moved back several times and the resort, with its hotels, luxury inns, and condos capable of handling thousands of visitors a day is still not completed.

 

Somewhat more successful was the reconstruction of the city of Samjiyon. A major part of Kim’s tourism agenda from 2018-2020, modernizing Samjiyon and the whole Mt. Paektu region held added importance as the mountain is the mythical home of the Korean people and was the alleged headquarters of Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla army who fought against the Japanese during their occupation, and thus, it is the home North Korea’s independence.

The stated goal for the town’s reconstruction was to turn it into a “utopia town under socialism” as it is “the sacred place of the revolution”. The whole transportation corridor from Hyesan to Samjiyon was also modernized. Construction in other towns took place as well, with nearby Phothae also being rebuilt almost entirely. Over 40 km of road, 60 km of rail, and 10 train stations were either rebuilt or newly constructed, and new apartment blocks and houses were built in Wiyon, Junghung, Kasan-ri, Pochon, Thongnam, Poso, and other locales in the region.

Samjiyon and the surrounding villages have a population of 35,000-40,000. Nearly all of the homes have been rebuilt, along with schools, theaters, clinics, and farming facilities. A further thousand homes were reportedly constructed in 2021 as part of the ‘third phase’ of construction.

Kim Jong-un has visited the area at least ten times, underscoring its importance to the leadership. Like his father, he hasn’t indulged in building monuments to himself, but he must maintain the people’s loyalty. By constantly reminding citizens that he is Kim Il-sung’s descendant and that he is investing in the quasi-holy ground around Mt. Paektu, Kim bolsters his own legitimacy and personality cult.

Various proposals to turn the Mt. Paektu region into international biospheres and parks, such as a proposal to turn it into a UNESCO Global Geopark, have also been made over the years. What effect the recent changes to the area and increased population might have on these ideas is unknown, particularly as deforestation continues to threaten the existence of several endangered species that live in the area.

 

Aside from the international situation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kim’s plans to turn North Korea into a regional tourism hotspot may run into other more fundamental difficulties. After reviewing satellite imagery, as I wrote for NK News in 2019, I was unable to find adequate water treatment facilities. What little energy infrastructure has been built hardly seems enough for the proposed numbers of visitors during peaks months as well.

Access to Samjiyon is restricted to rail and road, with the risk of power outages interrupting the trip always a possibility. There are also no tour packages that would allow someone to only visit the beaches at Wonsan. If you don’t want to be driven around Pyongyang or visit the DMZ while also going to Wonsan, you’re out of luck.

Limitations on freedom of movement, difficulties in crafting a personalized itinerary, and the prospect of blackouts (or knowing that your waste may be being dumped into the sea), doesn’t make the country a good prospect for mass tourism, even if you solved all of the geopolitical and human rights issues.

 

Foreign tourism has never been a major contributor to the economy. Prior to the Trump administration's ban on US tourism to the country in 2019, it was estimated that only $5 million came from American visitors. To compare to another money-earning ‘enterprise’, in 2020 North Korean hackers stole nearly $400 million worth of cryptocurrencies.

Of course, after a series of high-profile arrests and the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, it became clear that American tourists weren’t the regime’s focus to begin with. And official media has said as much, with the government preferring to focus on drawing in tourists from China, South Korea, and other East Asian countries. However, the tourist destinations that had been completed in time, before COVID disrupted travel around the world, had managed to only moderately improve the numbers of visitors to North Korea with between 250,000 and 350,000 foreign guests making the trip in 2019 depending on the estimates used. Well below the 2 million tourists Kim had wanted by 2020.

 

Two areas that have improved due to the domestic tourism push have been hot springs spas and regional amusement parks.

In October 2019 residents began moving into a new hot springs complex that was constructed in Yangdok. Kim Jong-un has visited the site more than once, taking the opportunity to be photographed with bathing locals. Yangdok also includes a skiing facility, but that was closed down (along with most recreational facilities) in the wake of COVID-19. However, preparations to reopen Yangdok and Masikryong were being made in November 2021.

Efforts to renovate the elite hot springs at Onpho began in late 2018 following Kim Jong-un’s lamentation that the site was in “very bad condition, saying bathtubs for hot spring therapy are dirty, gloomy and unsanitary for their poor management.”

Although, it seems that economic crisis has slowed work on the site, and it has yet to be publicly opened again, even though it has long been a place where the country’s elite (and the Kim family) would visit.

 

As briefly mentioned above, waterparks and other recreational and leisure centers have popped up all over the country. I’ve located 17 soccer fields and stadiums just in Pyongyang that have been constructed or renovated in the last decade, at least 158 ‘Children’s Traffic Parks’ have been constructed since 2017 around the country, open-air theaters have been built in each provincial capital, and waterparks of varying sizes, from Haeju’s 38,000 sq. m. park to Kanggye’s at only around 5,200 sq. m., were also added in each province.

While not tourism in the traditional “let’s go have fun and see the sights” sense, places of pilgrimage geared toward a domestic audience have also seen some improvements. Select museums dedicated to “American atrocities” during the Korean War, like at Sinchon, and some locations dedicated to the Kim family have been modernized. Other improved sites span from the Mt. Paektu region to the International Friendship Exhibition.

On the other hand, North Korea has hundreds of ancient forts, temples, pavilions, and pagodas, exposure to which could enrich the lives of every North Korean (and even help the regime’s propaganda), but most remain out of sight or ignored, left to decay into nothing as the sites promoted by the government are still heavily focused on modern propaganda.

 

Flood Recovery & Afforestation Efforts

Flooding is a perennial problem in North Korea, creating both losses of life and loss of harvests. The country has experienced several severe floods in recent years that together have affected the majority of the country, from the city of Sariwon in the south to Hoeryong in the far northeast.

North Korea’s proactive flood mitigation efforts have largely been pinned on the construction of dams to hold back rivers, but heavy rainfall and narrow river valleys often negate or overwhelm these measures. Dikes and levees have also been notoriously weak, leaving thousands of people and thousands of hectares at risk each year. But it seems that the government is finally taking flooding much more seriously.

For example, the town of Yonsa has experienced two major floods since 2016. After the first one, the riverbanks were washed away taking houses and the local stadium site with the floodwaters. New houses and levees were built but then another flood in 2020 erased the levees and knocked out a bridge.

This 2020 flood was part of a year that saw three typhoons affect the country. Following the flooding, Kim Jong-un began touring the sites from farming villages along the Chaeryong River in North Hwanghae Province to Komdok in the country’s north.

These visits gave Kim the appearance of being a hands-on leader who cared about getting people’s lives back together.

The result, hundreds of new homes were constructed in North Hwanghae and around 2,300 were rebuilt in Komdok (which is now in the process of being totally reconstructed and turned into a more modern mining region).

Flood-related construction can also be seen in Musan, home to the country’s largest iron mine, in Hoeryong (which also suffered heavily during the 2016 flood), Komusan, and up and down the valleys of the Hamgyong provinces. Within North Hwanghae, housing in the small villages around Myosong, Jithap, and Taechong was rebuilt, and a new neighborhood was constructed in Unpha.

It will take another typhoon or flooding event to know if the kilometers of new levees will hold and if the thousands of new homes can stand up to the weather, but 2020 certainly initiated a large number of construction programs in even some of the smallest towns in the country.

Map of deforested areas (red) from 2000-2015. Cropped image from: “Spatiotemporal Patterns of Forest Changes in Korean Peninsula Using Landsat Images During 1990–2015: A Comparative Study of Two Neighboring Countries”, by Dong, Ren, Wang, Q. Yu, Zhu, H. Yu, and Bao. IEEE Access, May 1, 2020. CC 4.0

Flooding isn't the cause of deforestation, but afforestation can certainly help with flooding. The country has struggled with deforestation since the famine and as wood stoves and heating stand in for electricity shortages, and Kim Jong-un has directed several policies toward addressing the issue.

Denuded hillsides can’t absorb as much water and contribute to flooding as well as soil degradation, which makes agriculture more difficult, so planting trees is an integral part of both flood control and increasing crop yields without having to spend huge sums of money.

In 2012 Kim wrote a policy paper “On the revolutionary switch in land management” which discussed forest management and the need for major afforestation efforts. This was followed by a two-day conference on deforestation and soil health in 2013 which dozens of North Korean scientists attended.

These events culminated in the “10-year plan of Forest Restoration” that runs from 2015 to 2024.

He also declared “war” against deforestation and in 2015 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong told the United Nations that the country aimed to decrease its CO2 emissions by 37%. While it’s unlikely that North Korea’s carbon footprint has declined much (outside of the effects of COVID on the economy), Kim Jong-un has ordered the construction of several tree nurseries and the renovation of forest management stations to combat deforestation.

Afterward, large tree nurseries began to pop up all over the country. They can be found in Kanggye, Rason, Sariwon, Heaju, Pyongyang, Kangdong, Sinuiju, Jungphyong, Wonsan, and Hamhung. Improvements to many of the country’s smaller forestry management stations can also be seen.

In total, Kim’s war on deforestation envisions over a million hectares of new forests with tens of millions of saplings being grown at any given time. To underscore the state’s seriousness, he has visited several of the new nurseries in person.

This initiative faces major odds, however. Around 30% of forest cover was lost between 1990 and 2010 and around 15,000 hectares are further lost each year. Between slash-and-burn agriculture, forest fires, droughts, and damaging insect infestations, just halting deforestation will become a major accomplishment if successful.

 

Powering the Country

North Korea has never had an abundance of electricity, but it had enough to meet its basic needs up until the 1970s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc, North Korea was no longer able to get coal and heavy fuel oil at discounted prices. Additionally, the country lacked the capacity to repair or replace parts in their aging power plants and struggled to keep up with rising energy needs through hydroelectricity.

Compounding the problem is the fact that much of the energy grid infrastructure and design is now 40+ years old. Energy loss through leaks and inefficient designs can cost North Korea up to 30% of its electricity.

The government has made some attempts at increasing generation through traditional thermal power plants, though, Pyongyang’s central plant is far too old to simply be repaired and the country would need considerable foreign assistance to modernize the plant.

Begun under Kim Jong-il in 2010-2011 the Kangdong Thermal Plant was supposed to supply the capital with between 200 and 300 MW of coal-powered electricity. Construction work proceeded after Kim Jong-un took over and by 2013, the cooling tower was being raised and ten apartment buildings for workers and their families were in various states of construction. Work stalled out by 2014, however, and quickly came to an end. Some work finally resumed ca. 2019/2020 and the structural supports for two boilers can now be seen, but the plant is still far from being completed.

Between 2015 and 2018, two new generating units were added to the Pukchang Thermal Plant, which provides energy to the country’s only aluminum plant and is the country’s largest thermal power plant. The completion date is speculated to have been moved up in response to Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s speech in which he called on the country to “drastically increase thermal power generation”. The expansion added 400 MW of electricity capacity when working at full efficiency.

Additionally, the power plant in Songbon, which had relied on fuel oil, was converted into a typical coal-fired power plant, as the country’s supply of petroleum has been squeezed. Work on the conversion appears to have been completed in 2020.

However, these improvements to fossil fuel power plants haven’t been enough to put an end to blackouts. Lacking the domestic capability to build new fossil fuel power plants, energy policy under Kim Jong-un has instead focused on hydroelectricity and it has slowly begun to look toward solar and wind power as well.

The unreliability of hydroelectricity in North Korea has been an ongoing problem, as droughts are common and water levels can fall below what is needed to turn the turbines. Many of the major dams in the country were also constructed in the early 20th century and are aging, producing less electricity in the process.

To help overcome these problems, dozens of small and medium-sized hydroelectric generators have been constructed in the last decade, and there’s also been a renewed push to install micro-generators in the numerous small streams that cover the country. These micro-generators are only enough to power a house or two but they can be used to run local grain mills or keep the lights on in the local clinic, helping to bring at least some electricity to the smallest communities.

On the larger side of things, the Huichon Dam was finally completed under Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il’s anger over years of delays and problems with the dam is one theory as to what caused his heart attack in 2011.

Huichon is the first dam in a series of hydroelectric dams that run along the Chongchon River. Over the course of 65 km, there are twelve dams – eleven were built under Kim Jong-un. Between the main dam and the other smaller ones, the installed generating capacity reaches 400-500 MW, enough to theoretically power almost half a million homes in ideal circumstances. But problems at Huichon continue and with fluctuating water levels, it’s likely the entire system operates at less than 75% capacity.

Other important hydroelectric projects include the Orangchon-Phalhyang Hydroelectric Dam that was completed in 2019 after twenty years of construction, the building of two dams along the Chungman River (in Usi County), the Wonsan Army-People hydroelectric project, and the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Stations – all being completed or initiated by Kim.

The last hydroelectric project I’ll mention is Tanchon. Planning to squeeze electricity out of the Hochon River system in Ryanggang Province dates back to a Japanese plan for the area beginning in 1925. North Korea’s own plans were envisioned by Kim Il-sung, but it wasn’t until 2016 when work began on what is the largest hydroelectric project in the country’s history.

It involves a 60-km-long tunnel that carries water out of the Samsu Reservoir, south (against the direction of the river) to a hydroelectric station in the Worker’s District of Sinhung in South Hamgyong Province. COVID has delayed its completion and only moderate progress has been made since 2019.

 

North Korea has experimented with wind and solar for decades, but only ever at small scales. And while the price of solar panels fell and citizens began to use them on their own, the government was still slow to adopt the new technologies. That’s changed somewhat in the last decade.

Although there still hasn’t been any large-scale production of wind or solar, several small facilities have been constructed and microturbines can be seen at several collective farms. Additionally, North Korean firms have begun to manufacture the turbines domestically instead of relying solely on importing them from China.

Today, experts place solar at providing less than 1% of the nation’s total energy, yet, upwards of 55% of North Korean households rely on solar energy at some level, either using it to power their entire home or by having small panels just to charge cell phones or single appliances. The government has also been adding larger panels to new construction projects and residential towers. These panels can easily be spotted in satellite imagery.

Wind and solar may not yet be enabling factories to run, but they are democratizing electricity in a way that hadn’t existed in the country before. With photovoltaic panels available in the markets, people whose neighborhoods aren’t even connected to the national grid can now keep a light on at night or help their local school run its equipment, all without relying on the central government.


Pyongyang’s Construction Boom

Major areas of new construction and renovation under Kim Jong-un. Image: AccessDPRK.com

Modern Pyongyang has been referred to as Pyongyang 3.0 not only because there’s a third Kim in charge, but because it has gone through three distinct periods of construction and urbanization.

Kim Il-sung’s Pyongyang was the rebuilt showcase capital born out of war. Kim Jong-il’s Pyongyang was crowned by the abandoned Ryugyong Hotel and became a city frozen in time. With few modernization programs, it still stressed the “‘monumentality’ and the reification of state ideology” with little regard for the practical needs of the population.

The city’s main urban area grew from 70 sq. km. in 1984 to over 103 sq. km. by 2017, but the most impressive changes that have occurred involve the mix and density of new buildings in the last decade, not merely outward suburbanization which is something that remains a slow and organized process due to existing administrative barriers.

The skyline of Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang would be all but unrecognizable to denizens from the 1960s and 70s. During his rule, he has preferred to embark on the monumental, not to the state, but in providing monumental housing projects, monumental recreational facilities, and monumental economic/industrial construction – setting his legitimacy not only in the completion of the country’s nuclear forces but in raising living standards and attempting to pull the country out of the economic quagmire that arose in the 1990s.

A number of housing projects had been initiated under Kim Jong-il, particularly in the Rakrang District on the southern bank of the Taedong River and in Hyongjesan to the north of downtown. These projects involved dozens of buildings and thousands of housing units but were left incomplete. Construction has carried on through the first decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule and they have become part of his ‘grand plan’ to construct over 66,000 new housing units in the capital by 2025. This figure includes 16,000 that were already under construction at the time of his March 2021 announcement and a further 50,000 to be built in several large sections throughout the city.

These new housing projects include a section of high-rise apartments in the Sadong District, new apartments in the Mansu District where the International Taekwondo Federation Headquarters used to be located, and there are plans for more housing in the Mangyongdae District.

As seen in the image above, there have also been numerous individual apartment buildings added in various places along with new factories, schools, and other facilities.

Two other major housing projects that were completed were the Mirae Future Scientists Street along the Taedong River and the Ryomyong New Town. Mirae involved construction along 1.2 km of Mirae Street and consists of some of the tallest buildings in the country including the famous Unha Tower. Completed in 2014, the development consists of 2,500 apartment units for scientists, students, and staff from the Kim Chaek University of Technology.

Following Mirae was the 2017 opening of the Ryomyong New Town. This redevelopment of land along Ryomyong Street by Kim Il-sung University saw the construction of 40 new apartment buildings and the renovation of a further 67 existing buildings of different types. The 2 km-long development stretches from the giant Tower of Immortality to just before the Kamsusan Palace of the Sun.

Kim Il-sung University has also been undergoing an expansion that began in 2014 and has yet to be completed.

A major criticism, however, of these projects has been the speed at which they were constructed. The tallest occupied building in North Korea is the Ryomyong Condominium Building No. 1 which reaches 82 stories. It was built in less than 3 months. Critics note that in the rest of the world, to safely and properly construct a building that tall it would take around 2 years.

Building collapses are not unknown in Pyongyang and land subsidence, a direct hit from a typhoon, or an earthquake could one day topple many of the buildings.

Additionally, with power outages still a recurring event, elevators can be a dangerous proposition, leaving the top floors in many Pyongyang buildings unoccupied or used by the lowest-ranking citizens in the capital. The lack of water pressure and fire suppression systems as a result of energy shortages also makes the higher floors undesirable.

As with all other major towns in the country, a new orphanage was constructed in 2014, the city’s amphitheater was renovated, and multiple soccer fields and stadiums have either been constructed or modernized. In the last decade, the Sunan International Airport was modernized, at least four medical facilities have also been built in Pyongyang, a new civilian airstrip was built along with a VIP heliport, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the Korean Revolution Museum were both enlarged, the Pyongyang Zoo was modernized, and there has been a wide range of factories and workshops constructed covering well over 730,000 sq. meters combined.

 

Updating the Provinces

While Pyongyang did see some new construction under Kim Jong-il, particularly in the last few years of his life, the rest of the country was largely left behind. Under Kim Jong-un, numerous towns and cities of all sizes have experienced some level of modernization and expansion.

Whether in an attempt to prove the successes of the Byungjin Line policy on the national economy or because the government recognized that there was a very real need for modern housing and other facilities throughout the country, dozens of population centers have benefited from new construction.

The cities of Sinuiju, Hwangju, Hamhung, Rason, Kanggye, Nampo, Pyongsong, Sariwon, Kosan, Wonsan, Chongjin, Haeju, and most recently, the Komdok mining region have all seen multiple construction projects ranging from renovating their downtown areas to enlarging factories and building new recreational facilities.

A few specific examples:

Komdok is currently in the middle of being reconstructed almost entirely, with 25,000 new homes planned by 2025 to turn Komdok into “the world’s best mining town”. This is being accomplished through the use of so-called “soldier builders,” who are merely members of the armed forces conscripted into civilian construction projects as a source of free labor – a very common practice in the country.

Sariwon has seen renovations of its downtown area, at least 20 mid-rise apartment buildings have been built, and nearly 13 hectares in the city’s west now hosts nurseries, schools, and recreational facilities.

Like Sariwon, Kanggye is another provincial capital that has seen substantial construction. Its stadium is being renovated, a plaza was added in front of the People’s Palace of Culture, at least 25 new apartment buildings have been constructed, three hydroelectric dams have been built downriver, and as mentioned in the tourism section, Kanggye has a small ski resort and waterpark.

 

Outside of city facelifts, relatively large housing projects have been constructed in Bukchang, Yongbyon, Paekun, Yomju, Tongrim, Chollima, Chunghwa, Songchon, Pyongsan, Hwadae, Tongchon, and Ongjin, just to name a few. Of the examples listed, these residences provide space for as many as 8,200 families.

Children’s nurseries, orphanages, and new schools have been built in each provincial capital. Additionally, the Ministry of Public Health announced as part of their 2016-2020 plan to modernize 200 local hospitals outside of Pyongyang. As many local clinics haven’t been positively identified via satellite, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not the government has been successful at this, particularly if the changes were all on the interior (new equipment, basic building maintenance, etc.), but we do know that the South Hamgyong Provincial Hospital in Hamhung recently underwent renovations, as did hospitals/clinics in at least Kanggye, Jasong, Samjiyon, in the village of Hunggyesu, Sariwon, Songnim, Nampo, and Haeju.

 

Agriculture and Land Reclamation

During the Communist Bloc era, North Korea could rely on ‘friendship prices’ for just about everything and never managed to develop food independence. Since then, Pyongyang has received nearly a billion dollars worth of food aid from the United States alone since 1995 and it is in greater need today than it has been in several years.

Famine, droughts, floods, and huge levels of mismanagement have all plagued the country’s ability to feed itself. Yet, despite the oft-quoted fact that North Korea only has 17% arable land, it actually has 46% more land dedicated to agriculture than South Korea and yet still produces substantially less food.

It’s within this context and with the memory of famine and belt-tightening that Kim Jong-un came to power proclaiming in 2012 that he would banish hunger once and for all through a ‘scientific approach' to agriculture and by going after corrupt officials.

Fast forward to 2021 and the government tacitly admits it’s failed, telling the people to tighten their belts once again and to be prepared to endure hunger until at least 2025. Although the government is blaming the situation on COVID, North Korea has needed to import food every year under Kim Jong-un and received international food assistance most years.

As such, the food supply has featured heavily in Kim Jong-un’s speeches and policy announcements. And indeed, many changes have been seen. From policy changes allowing farmers to sell more of their surplus produce to letting people have much larger “kitchen gardens”. And while these changes may have had a measurable impact in certain years, it’s clear they haven’t been enough.

In concert with policy changes, Kim has also embarked on several high-profile construction projects aimed at improving food supplies.

The Jangchon Vegetable Farm in Pyongyang has grown substantially since 2013 and is touted as being “a standard of the socialist rural cultural construction”. And in what may be the largest single agricultural project of Kim Jong-un’s rule was the development of the Sepho Tableland. With projects spread across 30 sq. km. the development involved everything from improving livestock grazing and production to increasing crop yields in the area.

Another giant project that has continued to be developed is the enlargement of the Kosan Combined Fruit Farm in Kangwon. The fruit farm occupies more than 3,400 hectares, with hundreds of homes constructed throughout the plain, and was redeveloped to allow for mechanized harvesting. And then there’s the Taedonggang Fruit Farm in Pyongyang that extends for 9 km along the Taedong River.

On the other side of the country, the Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery was constructed from 2018 to 2020. The 130 hectares worth of greenhouses are meant to provide food during the winter to Chongjin and the surrounding area.

Other large farms have that either been constructed or enlarged during his rule can be found in Rason, Hamhung, Samjiyon, and in Wonsan, where a full 1,000 hectares are currently being converted into greenhouses and related facilities across from the Wonsan Villa. In 2018 there were also 430 hectares of land brought back into cultivation in Mubong, Ryanggang to increase the production of potatoes, one of the regime’s most extolled crops.

And most recently, another large vegetable farm was announced, this time at Ryonpho south of Hamhung. The 100-hectare site will be constructed on the site of another airfield, as was the case with Jungphyong.

However, despite the creation of large ‘modern’ farms and regional experimentations with letting farmers have full control over small plots, food production has still fluctuated year-to-year, as natural disasters and weather changes still play a far greater role in food production than the state’s attempts to control the situation.

 

Beyond trying to boost crops, efforts into livestock have also been made.

As mentioned above, the work at Sepho partially dealt with grazing lands and around half a dozen livestock centers were constructed in the process. Existing poultry farms in Sijuiju and Kusong were remodeled and a new large poultry farm was constructed south of Pyongyang in 2019-2020 at Kwangchon.

In terms of other animals, the Phyongbuk Pig Farm was remodeled in 2020 and in 2021 a new black swan hatchery was established at the Kwangpho Duck Farm in Chongpyong. Fish farms are also an important source of protein, with over 60,000 tons produced each year between fresh and saltwater species.

Several examples of fish farms built in the last decade include the Ongjin Coastal Fish Farm which has been increasingly developed over time and encompasses nearly 3 sq. km, the Monggon Fish Farm was built in 2018, Paechon Fish Farm No. 2 was established in 2017-18, a medium-sized facility was constructed in Hungdok in 2016-17, and others in Hwanggok and Muggye were built in 2016.

Existing fish farms have also been expanded or had improvements made to their facilities such as the Sokmak Salmon Farm, Songdo fish farm in Kaesong, the 22-hectare Poman fish farm, and the Samchon Catfish Farm which can produce 3,000 tons a year.

 

Since the period of Japanese occupation through to today, over 850 sq. km. of land in northern Korea has been reclaimed, either through passive reclamation (letting enclosed areas silt up) or through actively filling tidal flats and river deltas. The state of North Korea took up this process after independence and has laid out multiple ambitious reclamation plans over the decades.

The new areas can be used for everything from rice paddies to salterns to aquaculture (sheltered fish farming) and are intended to make up for the lack of arable land in the country.

Under Kim Jong-un, dozens of plots, large and small, have been walled off from the sea and older projects begun by his predecessors such as the Ryongmae Island Project and Taegye Island Reclamation Project have been allowed to progress. The total area of the new sites, once completed, will add over 160 sq. km. of territory. Kim has said that he wants to add a total of 3,000 sq. km. of reclaimed land. In order to do this, however, the country will have to destroy several whole habitats: tidal flats, marsh and reed lands, and inter-island zones.

Marginal lands behind the West Sea Barrage and within the Kangry┼Ćng Reservoir that was created after the Kangry┼Ćng Bay was dammed in 1984-87 have slowly been turned into farmland, while some of the newer projects begun by Kim Jong-un are so large that they’ll forever change the coastline of the country and can be seen from space.

According to 38 North, twelve major reclamation projects are ongoing, with some having been initiated before Kim Jong-un’s ascent. Some of the ones that were started entirely by Kim Jong-un include projects around Sohae which encompass ~33 sq. km., one near Kwaksan that will encompass 7.2 sq. km., and another between Sinmi Island and Ansan that encompasses over 64 sq. km called the Honggondo Tideland Reclamation Project.

With rising sea levels, it’s unclear what efforts in design and construction have been made to prevent saltwater infiltration and to deal with additional erosion. It’s also unclear if the country will reap more benefits from rice production than they might have through fishing, shellfish production, and other activities had the reclaimed areas been left as tideland and marshes.

 

Transportation

New electric locomotive model by the Kim Jong Thae Electric Locomotive Complex. Image source: Rodong Sinmun, October 2020.

Adequate and modern transportation infrastructure has been lacking for decades. Although North Korea has 7,435 km of railway and 25,554 km of roads, the physical tracks and ties are decades old and most of the railcars are over 30 years old. A lack of sufficient electricity also means that a two-day railway trip using diesel locomotives could take 10 days using electric locomotives, which make up the bulk of North Korean railways, as prolonged electricity cuts can be common.

Efforts have been made to modernize the railcar fleet, with a new electric locomotive design being introduced in 2020, but most of the rail lines and rolling stock remain dated and in need of considerable repair.

The country’s road network is another matter. The lack of paved roads (less than 3% of the total) and winding mountain routes was chosen on purpose by Kim Il-sung to slow any invasion in the event of a second Korean War. Select roads and highways continue to be repaired as needed, particularly within Pyongyang, but new road construction has been rather limited, with major highway projects connecting Wonsan to Hamhung (began in 2012) and Hyangsan to Huichon having been abandoned.

Although Pyongyang is still seeking Chinese and Russian investment in new road construction, there has yet to be any progress on the ground despite various agreements signed years ago with the exception of the New Yalu River Bridge which I discuss later on.

 

However, considerable effort has gone into enlarging and modernizing the country’s main port facilities. As North Korea’s limited foreign trade and fishing fleet are major lifelines, the aging ports needed a facelift to facilitate both legal and illegal trade.

As the country’s primary port, Nampo’s port and oil facilities, in particular, have undergone major improvements.

Constructed on the former site of the Nampo Smeltery, a container port was added in the early 2000s and was later enlarged in 2011-13 to cover 21.3 hectares. A container gantry crane was added in 2019. A small ship repair facility was also built nearby, opening in 2015.

Of larger concern to international sanctions, Nampo’s oil and coal terminals have undergone improvements as well.

North Korea is prohibited from exporting coal yet managed to earn as much as $410 million from coal exports in 2020. Several vessels were also noted to be docking at the coal terminal that year which had seen the construction of a new covered coal bay in 2016.

Nampo’s oil storage capacity has grown considerably. Two new facilities have been constructed since 2016 and 14 new petrochemical storage tanks have been built since 2011, dispersed among the several oil facilities around the city. Foundations for a further 12 tanks also exist.

Many of the tanks are around 23 meters in diameter. If we assume that all 14 new tanks average out to 23 meters in diameter and are a conservative 10 meters tall, that gives an added maximum capacity of 29 million liters of oil. In other words, Nampo alone has added over 187,600 barrels in additional storage capacity under Kim Jong-un.

Other ports and harbors around the country have likewise seen modernization efforts. At Chongjin, the country’s largest fishing harbor, three new storage tanks have been constructed and several buildings within the shipyard, manufacture, and repair complex were completely remodeled beginning in 2018.

The ports and harbors at Changjon, Tongchon, Rangsong-ri, and Muchon-Koam have all seen improvements. At Tanchon, an entirely new harbor was constructed from 2010 to 2012 and has been well maintained ever since. Then there are the facilities in Rason (Rajin-Sonbong) which have undergone small but continual work ever since the creation of the Rason Special Economic Zone in the 1990s.

 

North Korea has 19 road and rail connections with its neighbors. Under Kim Jong-un, ten of them have been modernized and their capacities expanded. The freight regauging yard at the Tumangang Station connecting North Korea and Russia has been in the process of being upgraded, and construction on new customs facilities began back in 2017.

In a process that took a decade to complete, the Wonchong border crossing with China (just up the river from Tumangang) was constructed and provides a 4-lane bridge connection.

The Namyang-Tumen border crossing was completed in 2020 as part of a project that also saw 42 apartment buildings built.

New or enlarged customs facilities have also been constructed at Sambong, Hoeryong, Hyesan, Chunggang, and Manpo. And an entirely new overland border crossing was constructed north of Samjiyon. The single-lane road cuts through the forests before hitting the Chinese border and was established in 2014; although, it is not a regular commercial border crossing and seems to have limited use.

However, North Korea’s most symbolic cross-border connection, the New Yalu River Bridge, still has yet to be opened.

Construction of the newest official Sino-DPRK crossing point began in 2011 and is estimated to have cost $350 million, but due to multiple delays and eventually COVID, the opening has been postponed for years. The bridge wasn’t even connected to the country’s road system until 2021 and none of the customs facilities have been constructed.

 

Mass transit upgrades have also been made in Pyongyang specifically. New subway cars have been introduced and the city has slowly been updating its tram and bus fleet, as some buses from the 1970s can still be found traversing the streets.

Between 44 and 100 Chollima-321 trollies have been manufactured since the refurbishment of the Pyongyang Trolley Bus Factory in 2018 (after getting Kim’s personal approval). Twenty were sent to Wonsan to improve inter-city transportation in anticipation of greater traffic due to the Wonsan Resort, but the majority remain in use in the capital.

And most recently, the city is in the process of building its first subway extension since the primary lines were completed in the 1970s. Based on the visible tunnel excavation points, the subway extension will run for approximately 3.5 km from the current Kwangbok Station to a new station that will be located somewhere near the Mangyongdae Children's Palace. Although planning for the extension goes back many years, active construction along the whole line wasn’t occurring until 2019 and continues through to today.

 

Lastly, a former 30 km-long railway segment from Hyangsan to Unsal is in the process of being reconstructed along with at least one new train station. The line had been decommissioned in the 1990s. This is the longest segment of railway that I am aware of that has either been recommissioned or completely overhauled other than the Hyesan to Samjiyon line.

 

Conclusions

Whether they’re prestige mega-projects or simply new housing to keep up with population growth, construction has been a major theme throughout Kim Jong-un’s first decade.

Over 100,000 housing units have either been constructed or are planned nationwide. Provincial theaters, orphanages, and tree nurseries have popped up with regularity. And, of course, the regime has spent countless millions on military construction as well.

Some of these projects have had real impacts on the people’s lives and fulfills part of the state’s pledge to build a nation for the people. Whether it’s housing, recreation, or water purification sites, one cannot argue that there hasn’t been some improvement. However, Pyongyang continues to misallocate millions on tourist projects that will never draw in millions of visitors and on projects that only have propaganda value, that only serves to divert money away from much more needed infrastructure projects like updating the national power grid or improving water quality.

And despite what could be a billion-dollar construction spree over the last decade, many of the projects appear to be superficial and will have little real impact on the economy so long as North Korea continues to isolate itself and arrest foreigners for things that wouldn’t be criminal in the rest of the world.

At $40 a ticket, most North Koreans can’t afford to go skiing. With precious few international flights to Pyongyang, there’s yet to be a substantial uptick in the number of tourists. And even all of the residential construction comes with caveats. Elevators don’t always work, and water can’t be pumped up to the top floors of the tallest buildings rendering those floors uninhabitable. The lack of electricity also affects everything from mass transit to the ability of hospitals to perform their services.

COVID-19 also set several projects behind from the Wonsan Resort to the Tanchon Hydroelectric Project, hampering associated developments and preventing additional electricity capacity from coming online.

And so, while projects have proliferated to every corner of the country, it is difficult to assess their real impact in this current climate, recalling that other prestige projects in the past actually helped to plunge the country into economic collapse instead of helping.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.

 

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 2/1/2022

AccessDPRK.com
JacobBogle.com
Facebook.com/accessdprk
Twitter.com/JacobBogle